And they're super relevant right now.
“Veggie hate crime.” It might sound like something out of an embarrassing piece of chef fan fiction fused with an ultra-progressive children's book, but it’s actually the colloquial term for a very real, very relevant set of laws — ones that have been a serious impediment to food critics and health advocates across the country.
That's because these food disparagement laws, as they’re more officially known, don't just protect produce; they shield a whole host of other perishable foods (including milk, meat, and poultry) from unflattering statements that might ultimately damage the manufacturer's reputation or cause sales to decline.
While the legalities vary in each state, the laws essentially make it easy for food manufacturers or farmers to sue people who slander their food products. And they critically heighten the risk involved with simply raising concerns about food products. In some cases, the laws even give these manufacturers the legal right to seek extra damages — as is the case with the currently-pending Beef Products Inc v. ABC Broadcasting case. (More on that later.)
As of 2017, food libel laws have been passed in thirteen U.S. states. Which makes it pretty tough to be an outspoken food safety critic — even an amateur one — in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, or Texas.
In what might be the most famous court case involving a “veggie hate crime” law, a group of cattle ranchers in Texas sued Oprah Winfrey for a whopping $10.3 million in 1998. Speaking with a guest on her show two years earlier in 1996 about the disturbing realities of mad cow disease, she had declared that she might never eat another hamburger, causing beef prices to plummet for weeks.
When the jury cleared Winfrey and her team of the libel charges, she told reporters, "Free speech not only lives, it rocks.”
More recently, one of these laws came into play again. A lawyer for Beef Products Inc. alleged that scripted comments by ABC Broadcasting’s Diane Sawyer, in which she'd called his South Dakota based client's meat product "pink slime," had cost BPI billions in damages and many lost jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stated that BPI's product is safe, but after ABC's reports, several retailers including Wal-Mart stopped the sale of ground beef products with which Beef Products Inc. is associated.
The lawyer argued that ABC Broadcasting had therefore "engaged in a disinformation campaign against a company that produces safe and nutritious beef.”
Unlucky for ABC, “veggie hate crime” laws are not only in full effect in South Dakota, where BPI is headquartered; they're doubly strict. If BPI can prove that their product was unjustly slandered, they could receive up to three times the initial damages sought, meaning ABC could have to pay up to $6 billion. The jury trial is scheduled for June 5.
There is, of course, some basis for these laws. But it seems it’s only a matter of time before food safety advocates demand that they be restructured — or even go so far as to formally question their constitutionality.